There is a harrowing scene in the recent BBC adaptation of Les Miserables where the beautiful Fantine – played by Lily Collins – is forced to sell her luxuriant mane of hair to a travelling wigmaker to pay for her daughter’s medicine. It’s a reminder that the wig industry has been with us for a long time – and that the finest raw materials are not synthetic.
Over in China Xuchang is dubbed the nation’s “wig city”. Indeed, ‘hair harvesting’ there dates back to 1900 when Xu Xi, a local businessman, started trading the hair of Xuchang village women for steel needles brought into China by German merchants. Located in the middle of Henan province, Xuchang’s output of local human hair – known as “black gold” – remains the prime raw material for its wigs. Perhaps more surprising, the export of the hair has become part of the Belt and Road Initiative, thanks to growing wig demand from Africans.
The wig industry in Xuchang has created the largest distribution centre for human hair in China, providing over 300,000 locals with employment. Caixin Weekly found that during the mid-1980s, 10-inch “black gold” sold for between Rmb60 and Rmb70 per kilo. Nowadays, it’s worth over Rmb1,000 ($150) per kilo.
Xinhua also reports that in 2017, China exported $3.2 billion worth of hair-based products – historically these had gone to Europe and the US, but in 2018 Baidu found sales of China’s wigs on AliExpress had increased three-fold to African countries, of which the top three markets were Nigeria, Zambia and Kenya.
In 1999, Henan Rebecca Hair Products was established – paving the way for Xuchang’s rather unique Belt and Road business niche.
Focusing on the transformation of human hair into wigs – short or long, black or pink, straightened or braided – Rebecca’s annual revenue has risen to around Rmb2 billion. Regular customers even apparently include African heads of state.
Expansion in the African market – where Beijing has also advanced its geopolitical interests through the construction of railways and ports – has benefited Rebecca immensely. In 2017, Africa accounted for almost 50%, or Rmb884 million, of Rebecca’s revenue.
Henan is one of China’s biggest but poorest provinces. This helps to explain why the company has been able to harvest so much hair (see WiC124 for our article on the nation’s provincial stereotypes and why Henan comes off particularly badly).
Yet a slump in the quality of hair is now reported as Henanese women have started to use more chemical products in line with growing incomes.
If you combine this with competition from India’s “virgin hair” – which is said to be the best quality in the industry – it explains why Rebecca has not “reached the next level”, as one Chinese media outlet put it, in terms of producing the higher-end wigs favoured by celebrities like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Keira Knightley (the British actress told Elle in 2016 that she’d been wearing wigs for the prior five years and they were “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to my hair”).
Beijing hopes Belt and Road will help build a “community of common destiny for mankind” – the 70 nations participating in the scheme comprise 4.5 billion people. For Xuchang – with a population just shy of 4.5 million – that’s a lot of consumers to sell wigs to.
That means Rebecca, already the biggest wig company in the world, could become a lot bigger. Thanks to hair loss and fashion choices, Alibaba’s AliExpress estimates that foreign consumers currently buy a Chinese wig every two seconds over its platform.
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